Chapter 3 Page 2 | The Pioneers
Brazil, in particular, gradually became known internationally for the expertise of its aesthetic and plastic surgeons, but it was not a fame that extended to the mass consumer markets of the more economically developed world. Prof. Dr. Ivo Pitanguy is not a household name outside of his home country, where he is revered. Dr. Pitanguy has performed or guided thousands of surgeries in a storied, five-decade career and has trained more than 500 plastic surgeons from more than 40 countries who practice internationally, making cosmetic surgery expertise and technique one of Brazil’s best-known exports.
Among his peers, Dr. Pitanguy is regarded as the father of modern cosmetic surgery. He also has become the father of modern medical tourism, for those he has trained are among the most sought after surgeons in the world. Yet his name and his work, outside Brazil and South America, are familiar primarily only to other plastic surgeons, Brazilians living abroad, and the families and friends of his patients — not to the millions of potential plastic surgery patients in the United States who are far more likely to know the names of surgeons on Dr. 90210 or The Swan.
In the United States, if one had to name a doctor who was famous in international medicine during the 1960s, perhaps the only household name was Christiaan Barnard, M.D., the South African who performed the world’s first heart transplant in 1967. Notably, Dr. Barnard trained in the United States, as did Dr. Pitanguy, before heading home to eventual renown.
I cite Dr. Pitanguy and Dr. Barnard as pioneers not so much for their unquestioned skill as surgeons but because they achieved the kind of international fame that, for most of the 20th century, was reserved for doctors and scientists only in the West (North America and Western Europe) and, to a lesser degree, the East (mostly the former Soviet Union). Patients in Eastern bloc countries frequently traveled to the then-USSR and its allied nations for advanced medical care. For all of the 20th century, and even into the beginning of the 21st century, the vast majority of medical tourists were not jetting to South America or Africa, let alone the Far or Middle East. They were coming to the world’s great doctors and hospitals in the United States and in Europe.
From the perspective of the United States, in particular, this state of affairs served, and still serves, to reinforce the generally held belief that the United States has the finest medical care in the world. In the last 50 years, only Dr. Barnard’s achievement challenged this notion in the popular imagination. People were oddly comforted when Drs. and Michael DeBakey started transplanting hearts in Houston, Texas, almost in the same way they were when the United States finally answered the Soviet space challenge of Sputnik.
Meanwhile, Dr. Pitanguy just kept doing what he was doing. Patients spread the word. Brazil was and is the mecca of plastic and cosmetic surgery, challenged only recently by Southern California. The surgeons Dr. Pitanguy trained spread out through South and Central America and around the world. Over time, a second essential precondition for medical tourism to emerge as big business was met — medical talent spread out, belonging less exclusively to the developed world. In economically emerging nations, improving health care was a priority — which meant building more modern medical facilities.
The quality of care in the less-developed world rose steadily, at least in metropolitan areas, but prices for medical services remained low, relative to the United States and Europe.